Friday, 20 February 2015

New Boy

It is late summer, and the heat of the day is nothing compared to the heat of the horses. I strip the saddles off and watch the haze rise from their glistening backs. Watching the dark stripe between my friend’s shoulder blades, I realize they are not the only ones feeling the benefit of the morning’s exertion, as he strides across the paddock to fill two buckets from a Shutz tank that is yet in the shade.

I heave the Western saddle onto the cross bar of the corral and feel the tickle of sweat running down my own spine. I wipe my forehead on the sleeve of my pink drill shirt, before the beaded moisture on my brow makes its way into my eyes. It leaves a dirty, brown stripe on the thick cotton of my rolled up cuff, and I smile, knowing I am ruddy with the red dust of hacking tracks, thrown up by galloping hooves. Glory. It is my favourite way to be.

In the tack shed, a generator powers a light and a tiny fridge – because in the summer months, there is nothing more important than keeping the post-ride beer, ice cold. I take the hoof knife and flick the metal caps off three bottles, setting one to rest on the flags outside, and swigging from another, as I pour the third into the bottom of a bucket. I tip the pale liquid sideways to increase its depth, and offer the bucket to my horse through the bars of the corral. She sniffs, and sucks it greedily down in two gulps and a series of licks around the bucket’s perimeter. My friend returns with the water and sets his buckets down, patting necks and resting his forehead on sweat-greased manes for a moment. He climbs through the corral and sits beside me, on the steps of the tack shed. I pass him the cold beer from the flags and we unconsciously lean on one another to watch the horses drink, savouring this little piece of paradise.

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This is the memory that springs to mind this morning as I let the dog out of the Land Rover, and I feel my soul shining - I can’t wait to get forward to more of those days. To more arms around shoulders and sun beating down…to more serenity of spirit. Polo hits the ground beside me with an energetic thud and is a bouncing shock of long, white fur against a muddy, unfamiliar stable yard. There is no resentment in me at all about the fact that he will not stay white for long today.

I’m not wrong. Polo sniffs an exciting puddle full of mud and straw as I locate my riding hat under the coats, boots and body armour in the back of the car. His tail is wagging contentedly behind him, gently stirring the surface of another mud puddle.

“Here boy,” I pat my thigh and Polo trots after me, down towards the school, paws and tips turning muddier by the second. On the edge of the corral, he spots a large, fallen branch from the surrounding woods. Polo decides it is a grave threat to all present and I leave him growling at it and gnawing at its end as I duck under the ring-fence.

Waiting in the school, is what…or rather who, I’m here for. And I feel like I’ve waited a lifetime for him. I rub the dust from the moleskin crown of my black riding hat.

Tex is a 16’2, Skewbald gelding, 50% American Quarter Horse, 50% Clydesdale. He is tall and lithe, fine, elegant, bones, but oozing the strength of a Shire. His face is chestnut bay, an abstract, white star gracing his forehead. I raise my hand to his muzzle and he sniffs my fingers, eyeing me calmly.

In truth, I have known horses a long time. The first of them being Judy, a dark bay, and Jessel, a grey, when I was a child. And I recall, I never quite understood how old photographs and paintings of Jessel, could show him to also be dark bay. It was as mythical as unicorns to me, for I had never known him before his dapple-bloom stage. He passed on, as most greys do, of a malignant growth, when he was an old man, with a sunken back, and had turned pure white. Lydia…the beer-drinker from my memory, had been his replacement. At two years old and unbroken, she had already been the most stubborn mare I have ever met. She made me a strong rider with her iron will - if you could ride Lydia, you could ride anything.

Somehow, as Judy passed on of old age, we acquired several more sets of hooves by varying degrees of osmosis. Two native ponies moved in, a truly, tiny Shetland named Fred, who is like owning a very fussy Alsatian, and a rare, endangered Exmoor, of even rarer dun colouring, who arrived on the brink of a laminitic death.

Toby was nursed back to health as we sat on up turned buckets late into the nights, some playing guitar to him, and others changing his dressings. He was forced to share that stable, for a while, when a thorough-bred Clydesdale, Ginger Star, turned up needing a new home.

Never in my riding life, have I been short of steeds, or unable to ride with a friend, until Lydia was lost, far too soon, to a horrible accident last February. Circumstances meant the usual horse-world osmosis did not ooze into her awful, yawning gap, but left me a whole year awaiting the chance to ride big horses again, side by side with a friend, and challenge ourselves to keep pace and centre, so perfect, we can hold hands at a gallop across a field.

It may seem rather spoilt to complain, in still having three, of the absence of only one horse – but riding is not a privilege. Once it is in your blood, it is rather a way of life...a heart beat. A horse is an extension of you, and your spirit, and without one to whom you have been so connected, a whole part of you is missing. A huge part that you struggle to explain. The pain of losing Lydia was deeper than I could make understood to most, and unable to heal in the absence of that bond. Getting it back…getting a horse again…is like you are both coming home. It is breathing again. It's being whole.

Tex is new to me and I to him, and so I jam my old riding hat into place. I have not worn it aboard a horse I know and trust, for almost ten years. I like the wind in my hair – it has always been the whole point to me – but I am not stupid. Until I know him well, I will take care of us both.

Mounting is at a height I’m used to; it is exactly Lydia’s height. His shoulders are narrower than her thick set Cleveland ones, but he is stocky enough. We take a turn around the school at a walk and he shows me, he is not stupid either. He drops his head long and low and tests how much lethargy he might get away with – new rider, new chance to do no work, perhaps? An old trick is drawn out of my boot - resting the crop on his shoulder reminds him, that the boss is me, and I tap him into a working trot, wide and out, stretching his legs and mine on the rise.

Two turns of the school and we are at canter, a beautiful lope that shows off all his Quarter Horse lines. He holds his head with elegance and his legs shape with grace and precision. The jumps set up for Saturday morning riding lessons are far too tempting and as we change the rein, I bounce him over them in a figure of eight – bounce, bounce, hup! Still the words I was taught with at twelve years old, that echo in my head!

He isn’t quite as fit as I’d like yet, but that will improve with work, and I can feel his eagerness to jump. He loves the pace of this good, deep canter, and he expects me to work with him – a push from the hips with every stride, heavy leg to remind him of the shape of his body and the momentum I’m asking for; slack off and so does he. Tex is a work-out horse; the way I like them, deep seat, no hint of a lazy ride, but he slips easily from one stride to another, taking his commands rather softly – and the presence of a second horse in the school, flags up his competitive side. He likes to win.

My hand goes to my chin-strap, and I loosen the buckle with a snap. I wonder if Tex likes a beer? His body melts to mine as I absorb his rhythm and imagine how stunning a part-Quarter Horse will look in his tack when I teach him Western tack and commands. No doubt, Tex and I are going to get along. I lean over his neck.
“Hello, mate… Welcome home.”

Lydia (left) & Ginger-Star

The ever-precautious Fred!
Toby - very special little dun Exmoor

Tex - the new boy! 

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